How the Ultimate Fighting Championship Works

UFC History

Promotional art for the first UFC event
Image courtesy Josh Hedges
© Ultimate Fighting Championship
Promotional art for the first UFC event

The Ultimate Fighting Championship was the brainchild of Rorion Gracie, an expert in Brazilian jiu-jitsu (BJJ), and Arthur Davie, an ad man. Gracie wanted to promote his family's martial arts school, which focused on techniques that would work in a real fight and discarded any that were meant more for show or style. Before working on the UFC, the Gracie family had become legendary for "the Gracie Challenge," an open invitation for experts in any fighting technique to face off against a member of the Gracie family or one of their students in a real fight.

Davie pitched the idea of a martial arts tournament to Semaphore Entertainment Group (SEG). In this tournament, experts in different martial arts disciplines would face off against one another to determine which style was best. Reportedly, it was an SEG employee named Michael Abramson who coined the name "The Ultimate Fighting Championship." On November 12, 1993, the SEG debuted the first UFC event. Later, the event would be called UFC 1.

The event was in a tournament format (most early UFC events followed suit). The winner of a match moved up in the tournament to face another opponent. Davie designated some fighters as alternates in case a fighter was unable to continue. The tournament featured masters in karate, kickboxing, boxing, jiu-jitsu and even Sumo wrestling. Royce Gracie, Rorion's younger brother, eventually won the tournament after he caught Gerard Gordeau in a rear naked choke in the final bout.

The event was a success, and immediately SEG began to plan more tournaments. SEG decided to keep the Ultimate Fighting Championship name and would designate almost all future events by numbering them sequentially (UFC 2, UFC 3, et cetera).

Royce Gracie
Former UFC Champion
Royce Gracie

Ken Shamrock
Early UFC star
Ken Shamrock

Images courtesy Josh Hedges © Ultimate Fighting Championship

Early UFC events were very different from modern ones. There were no weight classes -- a smaller fighter might find himself facing a Sumo wrestler. Weight classes would be defined for the UFC 12 tournament (though they would be refined several times). Fighters could wear clothing traditional to their fighting style (such as a gi for jiu-jitsu). The UFC experimented with how long rounds should last, and a few early events had no limit on how many rounds could be fought -- they wanted fights to last until a clear winner emerged.

The style versus style format faded away gradually. Most fights would end up on the ground, and many of the disciplines represented in early UFC events had no focus or training in ground fighting. Royce Gracie won three of the first four UFC tournaments and proved that a ground game was necessary to be successful. Fighters began to adapt, expanding their repertoire of styles to include elements of wrestling and submissions. Events featured fewer black belt martial artists - the UFC quickly discovered a black belt didn't necessarily mean the wearer was a good fighter.

In the early days, the UFC held events in states that didn't have athletic commissions to avoid regulation. There were no judges, either. Even after judges were added to events, there were no clear parameters on how to judge a fight. Referees could not stop a fight; their job was to make sure the few rules that did exist were enforced, and to witness any submissions. Fortunately, the UFC gave referees the authority to stop fights after the first few events.

Apart from UFC 9, which featured a series of single fights, all UFC events used the tournament format until UFC 18. From that point on, with the exception of UFC 23, events featured single matches - fighters no longer had to worry about multiple fights in one night.

Best Fight Ever?

When asked about his favorite fight, Dana White recommends the second fight between Matt Hughes (welterweight champion at the time) and Frank Trigg at UFC 52. Two years earlier in their first fight, Matt Hughes defeated Trigg in the first round with a rear naked choke. When they met for their rematch, it looked like Trigg was going to avenge his loss. Early in the fight, Trigg threw a kick that hit Hughes in the groin. The referee did not see the foul and the fight continued. As Hughes tried to recover, Trigg capitalized on the situation and pressed the attack.

As Mr. White describes it, "Frank Trigg gets on top of him, gets top position, and starts dropping punches down on Hughes. It looks like the fight is over - like he could have knocked Hughes out. Hughes tries to turn over, and Frank Trigg gets his back and starts choking him out the same way Matt choked him out in the first fight. Unbelievably, Matt Hughes gets out of the choke, scoops Frank Trigg up onto his shoulder, and runs him the entire length of the Octagon and slams him down on the ground. I'm not kidding you, the roof exploded off this building."

Four minutes and five seconds into round one, Hughes managed to catch Trigg in a rear naked choke and submit him for the victory, retaining his title.

According to Dana White, the evolution of the UFC was haphazard because it was never meant to happen. "That show [the first Ultimate Fighting Championship event] was only supposed to be a one-off. Well, it did so well on pay-per-view they decided to do another, and another. Never in a million years did these guys think they were creating a sport."

Gradually, the UFC introduced more rules and restrictions, both as a means to appease critics and to shape mixed martial arts into a legitimate sport. Unfortunately, by this time SEG was in trouble financially. From UFC 23 to UFC 29, SEG faced the risk of bankruptcy. As a result, SEG could not afford to release these events to home video.

Courting Controversy
The SEG promoted early UFC events as brutal fights between martial arts experts. They claimed the fights were no holds barred, and that all fights would end with a clear winner. In the end, they said, the superior martial arts style would emerge. By trumpeting the fights as brutal exhibitions of force, they invited scrutiny from critics.

One such critic was United States Senator John McCain. McCain, a boxing fan, thought UFC fights were akin to "human cockfighting." He urged state governors and city governments to ban UFC events. Several planned fights had to change venues at the last moment when arenas told the UFC they were no longer allowed to hold their fights there.

For a long time, the UFC resisted taking steps to partner with state athletic commissions. Instead, SEG continued to promote the UFC as a primal sport, which only invited more trouble. Some cable companies refused to carry UFC pay-per-views. SEG's options became more and more limited. By the time the UFC adopted rules established by the New Jersey Athletic Control Board, it was too late for SEG to recover.

In the next section, we'll look at how a new company was able to re-invent the Ultimate Fighting Championship.